10 February 2011

Pub Talk: What's up with these crazy bright lights?

Wes: So I've been wondering, maybe you can shed some light on this for me, why are Chinese restaurants so bright? What's with the giant, fluorescent lights everywhere? Do Chinese people not care about being comfortable, do they have a different standard of comfort than Westerners, or what?

Henry: Well that's a good question, I dunno why either.

Wes: I've heard that the bright lights in restaurants are there to show how clean it is, like they've got nothing to hide. Sorta like white sheets and towels in hotels. And that makes some sense to me, even though I'd rather not have my retinas burned when I eat dim sum, but then I was shocked to learn recently that many Villagers have these awful lights in their houses...by choice. It must be like living in a chemistry lab.

Henry: I know what you mean now.

Wes: Is it possible that this is some cultural bias I have, like is it only Westerners who find these lights unpleasant after a while. It doesn't feel like a cultural thing. These lights are physically stressful to me, and I don't think I've ever met a gweilo who doesn't find them at least slightly unpleasant if he thinks about it.

Henry: I just came up with a theory. It might have something to do with the favorite entertainment of the locals: TV.

Wes: I'm confused. Isn't it easier to watch TV with low light in the room?

Henry: When you're watching TV for most of the hours in the evening, you don't care about lighting.

Wes: Ok, but Americans watch a shitload of TV, and we would never think of putting these lights in our houses.

Henry: Ok, or is it that the locals prefer to have one light to light up the whole room, while others use different lamps throughout the room, so they have a relatively weaker source for each?

Wes: Yes, they do seem to prefer that. I guess it is easier to just use one overhead light, but I think they would feel much better if they chose lighting that was actually comfortable. Just a question of priorities?

Henry: They think using different light sources will increase the bill.

Wes: I'm not sure they're right about that, seems like those fluorescent lights use a lot of power. But ok, it's about saving money vs. being comfortable. And since the purpose of life is to acquire as much money as possible, and not to have pleasure, they choose saving money, and don't give comfort a second thought!

Henry: Bingo, Wes! Hahaha.


  1. I love bright interiors. I can't stand dim, not bright decor. If I were to come up with some reason I would say, most Hong Kong folks I know have bad eyesights and they can't see well in dim light. Most of my gweilo friends have near 20/20 vision and like they can fucking see in the dark and they love their office like a bat cave, very cavernous very dark like in a nightclub, to me that's a WTF. I can never work like that. I want blindingly bright, harsh lighting.
    Plus it's good that one gets used to this kind of harsh interrogation lighting, you never know, one day when you got arrested you have a better chance surviving this environment say in 20 days straight, sleep deprivation and waterboarding and whatever some regime throws at them, Hong Kong people are ready for that. Just in case.

  2. As a Kongie, I can’t stand dim lights. My eyes start to hurt when I attempt to spent a large amount of time reading a book/watching tv/using a computer in typical 'gweilo lighting'. What’s more, this condition doesn’t improve just by installing a greater number of lights and, being away from Hong Kong atm, I sorely miss the bright blue lights of home.

    One of my Japanese friends actually told me that it was because of a difference in the reflective/absorptive nature of the iris’ of gweilos compared to 'us'. That our eyes are generally darker and what-not makes our eyes adaptive to bright blue light (and more able to withstand natural sunshine), whereas a regular 'gweilo' would find the blue light harsh and dim orange lights more acceptable to their eyes.

    Simply saying we value money over comfort is ridiculous, as we find the “unpleasant” and “stressful” blue lights far more comfortable than the weak and dim ‘western’ lights. Shame on you! :P x

  3. I really appreciate both these comments. It seems that at the Pub, when we troll we get thoughtful, insightful comments in return.

    I learned a lot from these comments. It appears that Hongkies really do have a different standard of comfort, when it comes to lighting, than we gweilo. What's more, it appears to be based on physical differences. Very interesting.

    I'm a gweilo with blue eyes and glasses (no 20/20 vision here). I guess I did know that my eye color makes bright light more unpleasant than dimmer light, but I never put that together with the lighting here (though it seems obvious now that anon pointed it out). I guess it makes sense that with increased discomfort with bright light goes increased comfort with dim light. Though my vision isn't perfect, it does seem to be better than a lot of people here.

    So I think there might be a causal relationship, between preference for these bright lights and bad eyesight, as the first anon hypothesizes. It would be interesting to see how that relationship works: does the bad eyesight cause a preference for bright light, do the bright lights contribute to making people's eyesight worse, or is it a cyclical, self-reinforcing relationship? (The last one is my guess.)

    Myopia is on the rise in HK, and it seems to be due to environmental factors. (Chinese Americans have better eyesight, on average, than Hongkies.)

  4. Funnily enough, I was thinking about the same relationship between bright light and short sightedness after reading Anon No.1’s post. I heard that over correction with spectacle prescriptions is one of the major causes of worsening short sightedness as it puts a strain on the eyes by pulling too great a range of vision into focus. Add to this, the brighter light that is in Hong Kong means brighter vision and range (putting a greater strain on eyes) compared to the dimmer 'gweilo' lights - which could have a direct contribution to the American Chinese being less short sighted than Kongies. Either way, I think there is also a strong relationship with Kongies bad eye sight and the constrained living space (where the ratio of living room:tv:sofa would be a shorter distance than in a regular American home), and many more factors that are based on life style…

    By the way, thanksfor the thoughtful reply, I didn’t expect that at all! :) x

  5. Yeah, for sure those incompetent fake optometrists deserve a lot of the blame. I got some lenses from one of those guys in Wan Chai a while ago, and they were way too strong. When I went in to complain, the guy just lied and lied to my face, saying that his method was better than actual optometrists who use sophisticated equipment to get the prescription right. Eventually, I had to eat the cost of the bogus prescription and go to Lenscrafters for a legitimate prescription. In the two weeks I had that crappy prescription, I could feel my vision getting worse. It's a shame so many people in HK have never had a good prescription, so they don't even realize how much those fake optometrists are destroying their eyes. There needs to be some serious regulation in that area, but of course the free-market fundamentalist, Milton Friedman worshipers think the market will magically weed the frauds out.

    I think that lack of space is also an issue, not just inside but outside. Whether inside or out, Hongkies rarely get to look at something far away (cause there's always a wall close to their faces) and rarely get a chance to see in the dark (cause the interiors are over-illuminated and it's never dark outside). I would be interested to see if Hongkies raised in places like Lamma, Cheung Chau or other places where it's darker and more spacious have better eyesight than their more urban counterparts. These comments have made me aware of the fact that Chinese people on Lamma often carry around flashlights to walk down streets that I find perfectly well-lighted. There really is a physical difference there, but I think it's still mostly environmentally determined (eye-color effects notwithstanding).

  6. This post together with its insightful comments should appear in The Journal of Ophthalmology. Or even the most authoritative prestigious The Journal of Anthropological Ophthalmology.


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